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Spotlight 13: Feeling overwhelmed and under-supported


The Business Case for preventing and managing employee burnout



By Karen Milner PhD, Associate Professor in Organisational Psychology at Wits University


Burnout is typically regarded as the last stage of a process that begins with an employee feeling stressed and overwhelmed. In a fast paced, deadline driven work environment – which is characteristic of most South African organisations today – it is not unusual for employees to sometimes feel overwhelmed. We are faced with a multitude of demands from work and home and if we are not provided with sufficient resources to meet these demands, stress, physical ill health and burnout can result.


An extensive body of academic literature has established the causal pathways that lead to burnout. In a seminal article on this topic, Bakker and Demerouti (2007) established that all jobs comprise a series of demands (physical, psychological and cognitive demands) and a set of resources to meet those demands. Organisations which make high demands on their employees but which match these demands with the resources necessary to meet these demands are most likely to have engaged, productive employees. However, under conditions under which demands are not matched by available organisational and individual resources, burnout is a likely outcome.


There is some debate in the literature over whether there is a distinction between burnout and depression, and indeed burnout may be treated with anti – depressants, as was the case with Nella. While these debates are academically important, what is relevant from a manager’s perspective, is that burnout is a form of workplace strain akin to depression. Burnout is a risk factor for the development of depression but the major distinguishing feature, clinically is that burnout can be treated by removing the stress from the person or the person from the stress. Depression cannot simply be treated by removing stress.


The term burnout itself is highly evocative – conjuring the image of a stompie underfoot at the end of the day – used up and discarded. It refers to the sense of depletion that occurs when an individual operates for too long in a demanding environment which consistently exceeds their ability to respond effectively. It is typically characterised by three symptoms:

1. Exhaustion – a bone wearying tiredness which has nothing to do with the physical demands being made on one’s body but which saps one of all energy and enthusiasm.

2. Reduced personal accomplishment – a depletion in confidence and self-belief which makes us doubt our ability to achieve anything of value; and

3. depersonalization – a sense of disconnection and lack of concern for clients, patients and customers which can manifest itself in cynicism and callousness (Maslach & Leiter, 2016).


This Spotlight paper looks at practical steps that Human Resource Practitioners can implement in the workplace in order to prevent burnout.


Download the full paper here.




The HR Think Tank works to improve South Africa’s talent competitiveness through targeted research and interventions in key areas. It aims to ultimately shift the country’s trajectory by pursuing the conditions for people to reach their potential in the world of work. Members help to shape and influence policy and the broader challenges facing HR and labour.


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